Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

…In the 25 years since I graduated from college, such demands have relentlessly ratcheted up. The quantity and complexity of the mental work expected of successful students and professionals have mounted; we’ve responded by pushing ever harder on that lump of gray matter in our heads.

The result has not been a gratifying bulking up of our neural “muscle.” On the contrary, all the mental effort we’ve mustered over the past year has left many of us feeling depleted and distracted, unequal to the tasks that never stop arriving in our inboxes. When the work we’re putting in doesn’t produce the advertised rewards, we’re inclined to find fault with ourselves. Maybe we’re insufficiently gritty; maybe, we think, we’re just not smart enough. But this interpretation is incorrect. What we’re coming up against are universal limits, constraints on the biological brain that are shared by every human on the planet. Despite the hype, our mental endowment is not boundlessly powerful or endlessly plastic. The brain has firm limits — on its ability to remember, its capacity to pay attention, its facility with abstract and nonintuitive concepts — and the culture we have created for ourselves now regularly exceeds these limits.

The escalating mental demands of the past quarter-century represent the latest stage of a trend that has been picking up speed for more than 100 years. Starting in the early decades of the 20th century, school, work and even the routines of daily life became more cognitively complex: less grounded in the concrete and more bound up in the theoretical and abstract. For a time, humanity was able to with this development, resourcefully finding ways to use the brain better. As their everyday environments grew more intellectually demanding, people responded by upping their cognitive game. Continual engagement with the mental rigors of modern life coincided in many parts of the world with improving nutrition, rising living conditions and reduced exposure to pathogens. These factors produced a century-long climb in average I.Q. scores — a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect, after James Flynn, the political philosopher who identified it.

But this upward trajectory is now leveling off. In recent years, I.Q. scores have stopped rising or have even begun to drop…Some researchers suggest that we have pushed our mental equipment as far as it can go. It may be that “our brains are already working at near-optimal capacity,” write the neuroscientist Peter Reiner and his student Nicholas Fitz in the journal Nature. Efforts to wrest more intelligence from this organ, they add, “bump up against the hard limits of neurobiology.” This collision point — where the urgent imperatives of contemporary life confront the stubbornly intractable limits of the brain — is the place where we live at the moment, and rather unhappily. Our determination to drive the brain ever harder is the source of the agitation we feel as we attempt the impossible each day.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. It entails inducing the brain to play a different role: less workhorse, more orchestra conductor. Instead of doing so much in our heads, we can seek out ways to shift mental work onto the world around us and to supplement our limited neural resources with extraneural ones. These platforms for offloading, these resources for supplementation, are readily available and close at hand…

We, too, extend our minds, but not as well as we could. We do it haphazardly, without much intention or skill — and it’s no wonder this is the case. Our efforts at education and training, as well as management and leadership, are aimed principally at promoting brain-bound thinking. Beginning in elementary school, we are taught to sit still, work quietly, think hard — a model for mental activity that will dominate during the years that follow, through high school and college and into the workplace. The skills we develop and the techniques we are taught are mostly those that involve using our individual, unaided brains: committing information.

The limits of this approach have become painfully evident. The days when we could do it all in our heads are over. Our knowledge is too abundant, our expertise too specialized, our challenges too enormous. The best chance we have to thrive in the extraordinarily complex world we’ve created is to allow that world to assume some of our mental labor. Our brains can’t do it alone.

Annie Murphy Paul, from “How to Think Outside Your Brain (June 11, 2021)

Body

When bodies are discussed, especially in popular culture, it has often meant a very circumscribed set of themes, largely to do with what the body looks like or how to maintain it at a pinnacle of health. The body as a set of surfaces, of more or less pleasing aspect. The perfect, unattainable body, so smooth and gleaming it is practically alien. What to feed it, how to groom it, the multiple dismaying ways in which it might fail to fit in or measure up. But the element of the body that interested me was the experience of living inside it, inhabiting a vehicle that was so cataclysmically vulnerable, so unreliably subject to pleasure and pain, hatred and desire…

I wanted to formalise my understanding of the body, and I was fascinated too by the idea that it might have its own language, distant from speech but just as eloquent and meaningful, composed of symptoms and sensations rather than words… Over the next two years, I drew every bone, muscle and organ in the body, memorising their functions and their names, right down to the tiny bones of the hand: lunate and pisiform, named for their resemblance to moons and peas. On sheets of butcher’s paper, I mapped the metabolic transformations that went on inside the miniature factory of each cell. At the beginning I had only the crudest notion of how the body worked, but I struggled gamely on, fascinated and a little appalled by how much of my life happened beneath the Plimsoll line of conscious control. Gradually it all came into focus. The body was a device for processing the external world; a conversion machine, hoarding, transforming, discarding, stripping for parts.

Olivia Laing, Everybody: A Book About Freedom (W. W. Norton & Company, May 4, 2021)

 

must you…

must you finish a thought? is it not enough to

 


Source: yelenabelovas. Image via bytheslice

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

Here are some key attributes of the voice in my head. I suspect they will sound familiar.

  • It’s often fixated on the past and future, at the expense of whatever is happening right now. The voice loves to plan, plot, and scheme. It’s always making lists or rehearsing arguments or drafting tweets. One moment it has you fantasizing about some halcyon past or Elysian future. Another moment you’re ruing old mistakes or catastrophizing about some not-yet-arrived events. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.”
  • The voice is insatiable. The default mental condition for too many human beings is dissatisfaction. Under the sway of the ego, nothing is good enough. We’re always on the hunt for the next dopamine hit. We hurl ourselves headlong from one cookie, one promotion, one party to the next, and yet a great many of us are never fully sated. How many meals, movies, and vacations have you enjoyed? And are you done yet? Of course not.
  • The voice is unrelievedly self-involved. We are all the stars of our own movies, whether we cast ourselves as hero, victim, black hat, or all three. True, we can get temporarily sucked into other people’s stories, but often as a means of comparing ourselves to them. Everything ultimately gets subordinated to the one plotline that matters: the Story of Me.

In short, the voice in my head—and perhaps also yours—can be an a**hole.

Dan Harris, from “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book


Notes:

  • Dan Harris Bio: Dan Harris is a co-anchor the weekend edition of Good Morning America on ABC News, as well as a correspondent for such broadcasts as Nightline and World News Tonight. He is also the author of 10% Happier, a #1 New York Times best-selling book about a fidgety, skeptical news anchor who stumbles upon meditation. Recently, Harris launched an app specifically designed to teach meditation to doubters and busy people. This ancient practice – too long associated exclusively with hippies and robed gurus – has been shown by modern science to boost resilience, focus, creativity, emotional intelligence, and overall mental and physical health. With meditation and mindfulness now being embraced by executives, athletes, educators and entertainers, Harris has become a leading voice for pushing for the practice into the mainstream, using plain English and dry humor.

I’m only now starting to fully understand is that this is an inside job. It only works if I believe.

But what I’m only now starting to fully understand is that this is an inside job. It only works if I believe. I’ve always been confident, positive, doggedly determined; but doubt is beginning to mitigate my conviction. Who am I to think I can accomplish this, when so many have struggled with similar setbacks; some with Parkinson’s, some with the aftermath of spinal surgery? I may be the only one who has taken on this particular two-headed beast…

I have to learn to walk again; to reclaim my mobility, remaster my motion. I consider this fundamental to my therapy —  for me, it all starts and ends with walking. And I understand that it’s more complicated than that. So many tiny disciplines have to be observed, and neglected muscles and ligaments need to be restored. I’m exhausted by the effort I’ve already put in at Johns Hopkins, and daunted by how much work I still have to do. It’s like being nibbled to death by ducks.

Back in the days of carefree ambling, I would have considered the topic of walking to be rather pedestrian. Now the acts of stepping, strolling, hiking, and perambulating have become an obsession. I watch Esmé gliding through the kitchen, grabbing an apple while opening the fridge door for a coconut water, closing it with a quick shift of her hip and pirouetting out the swinging door at the other end of the room. Down in the lobby, my neighbor and her daughter are quickstepping to catch a taxi. I spy on a man walking with a slight limp, which he counterbalances with a bag of groceries. I secretly watch the way they all move. Easy, breezy, catlike, or with a limp, every one of them is far better at it than me. It may be that the most difficult, miraculous thing we do, physically, is to walk…

It’s tough. With PD and the aftermath of the surgery, something as simple as remaining upright is often sabotaged by a rogue army of misfiring neurons. I try to stay organized. I have memorized a litany of admonitions, not unlike my golfer’s list of swing thoughts: Keep my head centered over my hips; hips over my knees; no hyperextending; stay in line with my feet; eyes forward; shoulders back; chest out; lead with the pelvis. All of this kinetic vigilance can dissolve in a nanosecond of panic, or come apart with some other distraction. A tiny nervous jolt or spasm, and like a house of cards in a sudden gust of wind, the only messages that make it through the debris are: Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall

—  Michael J. Fox, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality (Flatiron Books, November 17, 2020)

All My Friends

This book is dedicated to the voices in my head, the most remarkable of my friends.

And to my wife, who lives with us.

Fredrik Backman, the opening dedication to his new book titled “Anxious People: A Novel” (Atria Books, September 8, 2020)


Notes:

none of us can bear too much reality

Thinking about swifts has made me think more carefully about the ways in which I’ve dealt with difficulty. When I was small I comforted myself with thoughts of layers of rising air; later I hid myself among the whispers of recorded works of fiction. We all have our defences. Some of them are self-defeating, but others are occasions for joy: the absorption of a hobby, the writing of a poem, speeding on a Harley, the slow assembly of a collection of records or seaside shells. ‘The best thing for being sad,’ said T. H. White’s Merlin, ‘is to learn something.’ All of us have to live our lives most of the time inside the protective structures that we have built; none of us can bear too much reality. We need our books, our craft projects, our dogs and knitting, our movies, gardens and gigs. It’s who we are. We’re held together by our lives, our interests, and all our chosen comforts. But we can’t have only those things, because then we can’t work out where we should be headed.

—  Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights (Grove Press, August 25, 2020)


Photo Salvi Danes, (Barcelona) (via Your Eyes Blaze Out)

Lightly Child, Lightly

Like a bird with a broken wing
that has traveled through wind for years.
like a bird unable to endure
tempest and wind
the evening falls…
Now I long for a little quiet
all I want is a hunt on a hill
or near a seashore
all I want in front of my window…

The evening would fall
the flocks would echo descending to their fold
like some quiet simple happy thought
and I would lie down to sleep
because I wouldn’t have
even a candle to light,
light,
to read.

George Seferis, from “Five Poems by Mr. S. Thalassinos” from “Hampstead” in George Seferis: Collected Poems, 1924-1955


Notes:

  • Poem: Thank you Make Believe Boutique
  • Photo: Lesley Mattuchio with Black Skimmer. “This is the Skimmer’s version of the “broken wing” act to draw you away from their young.”
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

Lightly Child, Lightly

We are looking for new spaces, but what we are really looking for is retreat, clarity, to escape our internal chaos.

For the days not to feel glued together.

— Kate ZambrenoDrifts: A Novel (Penguin, May 19, 2020)


Notes:

  • Photo: Image source here. (via Mennyfox55)
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

Truth


Source: Hartley Lin (formerly known by the pseudonym Ethan Rilly) is a cartoonist based in Montreal, Canada. Young Frances, the first collection from his ongoing comic book Pope Hats, won the 2019 Doug Wright Award for Best Book. He has drawn for The New Yorker, The Hollywood Reporter, Slate, Taddle Creek and HarperCollins. (via thisisn’thappiness)

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